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Articles / Preparing for College / SAT or ACT: Which Test is Right for You?

SAT or ACT: Which Test is Right for You?

Kristen O'Toole
Written by Kristen O'Toole | April 30, 2018
SAT or ACT: Which Test is Right for You?
Austin Chan/Unsplash

If you plan to apply for college, you are going to encounter either the ACT or SAT in your admissions journey. While some colleges no longer require test scores or offer alternative application paths, most schools require test scores as part of the application process. Earning a high score on either the ACT or SAT will increase your available options for attending college. Standardized test scores are also used in merit-based scholarship decisions, so high scores can help you pay for your dream school as well as helping you get accepted! So which test should you take?

The majority of colleges that require test scores will accept either ACT or SAT scores, and do not favor either test over the other. That means you can choose the test that makes the most sense for you. You may live in a state where one test is required before high school graduation, or there are state-funded options to take a specific test for free. Click here for a chart covering your options at the state level.

If you're anything like our students at The Princeton Review, you might be more interested in the test that will best reflect your strengths than the test that is most convenient (or least expensive) for you. Generally, both the ACT and SAT cover the same topics and measure the same skills, but there are differences in format and structure.

Unique Aspects of the SAT:

- The SAT consists of a total of 154 questions, plus an optional Essay.

- You can use a calculator for some, but not all, Math questions on the SAT.

- The Reading section on the SAT consists of five passages.

- Scored between 400-1600. Your composite score is the sum of your two section scores. Each section is scored between 200-800.

Unique Aspects of the ACT:

- The ACT consists of a total of 215 questions, plus an optional Essay.

- There is a Science section on the ACT, but it tests your critical thinking skills, not your knowledge of biology, chemistry or physics.

- You can use a calculator for all Math questions on the ACT.

- The Reading section on the ACT consists of four passages.

- Scored between 1-36. Your composite score is the average of your four section scores. Each section is scored between 1-36.

Aspects Common to Both ACT and SAT:

- The Essay section is optional and an additional cost on both exams, and is not required by most colleges. Essays are scored separately and are not factored into the composite score on either the SAT or ACT.

- Both exams run about three hours (longer if completing the Essay).

- The Math sections on both exams include arithmetic, algebra I & II, geometry and trigonometry.

Many folks in the admissions space have traded nuggets of conventional wisdom on choosing a test over the years: “If you like to read, the SAT is for you." “If you struggle with time limits, the ACT is easier." These platitudes are a bit outdated and don't reflect changing admission trends or updates to the tests themselves. The College Board changed the SAT in 2016, and it is now easier than ever to prep for the ACT and SAT concurrently and earn competitive scores on both exams. On our 2018 College Hopes and Worries Survey, 69 percent of respondents reported that they (or their child) plan to take both the ACT and SAT.

The very best way to choose whether you want to take the ACT, SAT or both is to take a practice ACT and a practice SAT under realistic testing conditions, and review your scores. How do your practice scores compare to current national percentiles put out by ACT, Inc., and the College Board? How do they compare to the average scores of first-year students at your dream school? (You can find this information on most college websites or college data profiles.)

Free practice tests are available via test prep books in the library, through your guidance counselor or high school, or you can head over to The Princeton Review to sign up for a free practice SAT or ACT online.

Written by

Kristen O'Toole

Kristen O'Toole

Kristen O’Toole, director of online content for The Princeton Review, has been writing and editing books and digital materials on test prep and college admissions for 10 years. She has contributed to many annual editions of The Best Colleges, The Complete Book of Colleges and Colleges That Pay You Back. Prior to joining The Princeton Review, she worked in book publishing, taught creative writing for high school students and wrote a young adult thriller. She holds a BA in English from Bates College and an MFA in fiction writing from Columbia University.

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